In 1953, Halpern was ready to turn pro as a fighter. The D.A.'s office had other plans for him: five to 10 at Elmira for sticking up a food market. It is a case well remembered in the Bronx.
"A carload of kids stuck up this place on 178th and Washington," recalls a detective from the 48th Precinct. "The cop on the beat saw the stickup. He was an old-timer, 38 years on the force. He pulled his gun and fired at the getaway car. It was on a Friday afternoon, and the cop had a four o'clock swing. That's when he was off duty. He was taking his family down to Atlantic City for the weekend. He figured his shots had missed. He never filed a report.
"It turns out he had wounded one of the kids. The robbery was traced. They called the cop in. 'How come you never filed a report?' the inspector asked him, and he told him the truth. 'Let's have 'em,' the inspector said. 'Let's have your papers.' They retired him on the spot."
Halpern did four years in Elmira. He says it was rough but not too bad. The convicts stuck together. There wasn't the racial tension he found in prison later on. "I did some boxing," he says. "I won the middleweight title when I got there, and I left as the heavyweight champ. I fought a lot outside the ring, and that's when I'd get in trouble. Sometimes the guards would use their clubs on you. We had a saying: 'clubs are trumps.' "
When Halpern got out, it took him a year to get his license to fight in New York State. In 1958 he won two of three bouts. He beat Attilio Tondo in a four-rounder in St. Nick's; he outslugged Henny Wallitsch in a vicious, bloody six-rounder in St. Nick's as the undercard to Roland La-Starza-Larry Zernitz, and he lost a split decision to Tom McNeeley in a four-rounder in the Garden. It was a few years before McNeeley fought Floyd Patterson for the title.
"It's funny," Halpern says. "When I was doing my 17-year stretch I got a letter from McNeeley. He was the boxing comissioner of Massachusetts. He wrote, 'When they sent you up, I said to myself, I'm glad I'll never have to fight that guy again. You were an absolute animal in the ring. Is there anything I can do to help you now?'
"I wrote back, 'Yeah, get me out.' "
Halpern spent time in Sing Sing, Dannemora, Attica and finally Green Haven. He got in trouble. He fought. There was no boxing program. He had his own version of it. When you talk to him now it is hard to understand the wildness that must have burned so intensely inside him. He hides nothing. He ducks no questions. He looks exactly like what he is, an old fighter, with hair receding at the temples, scar tissue over both eyes and more of it around his chin. He talks very softly, and at times he seems almost embarrassed about his life. But he lays it all out.
"Dannemora's upstate in Clinton," he says. "They call it the Siberia of New York. I used to work out on the big bag there. Sometimes I'd have a fight, but it was mostly to show people I could take care of myself. Then they'd leave you alone. They wouldn't bother you. Once I saw a convict chasing another one in the yard with a knife. The guards looked the other way.
"I figured it was only a matter of time till I'd be out on appeal. Three years went by, four years. My appeals were turned down. I got mad, bitter. I started fights. I was known as a troublemaker. I'd do 15 days in the box, in segregation. No bunk to lie down on; it was just a strip cellar. I'd walk around, do push-ups. When I'd come out I'd be back in trouble again. The other inmates used to tell me, 'Bobby, you'd better take it easy. These guys'll kill you.' I used to duck meals. They'd put Thorazine in the food, to calm me down. I fought it. Once I lost 25 pounds in one stretch in segregation. My friends walked right by me when they saw me. They didn't know me.